A few weeks ago I got a new truck. Sir was fed up with my taking my little car over the dirt roads of the Alabama Hills and through Death Valley, and the fact that it seemed to be a magnet for accidents. As we were having coffee one morning, waiting to pick up my car from its fourth trip to the body shop, he suggested I trade it in for something more suitable. Like a tank. I didn’t know I was in the market for a new vehicle, but he figured the next hit and run would be the death knell for the car anyway; I’d been hit twice by persons unknown, once by a neighbor, and once by a maniac on the freeway. Then there were all the times I had scraped the vehicle on the fence or the garage cabinets, rolled over large objects in the road, and otherwise put the car through trials it wasn’t meant to face. It was a dainty car, not a utilitarian one. I needed a useful vehicle, not a looker.
Vehicles are part of your life, part of who you are, attached to your destiny and your past; they reflect who you are to some degree too and if you don’t care about what you drive, your car says that too. My early life, seen from the perspective of cars I’ve known, is rich with memory and nuance because all my family rode in those vehicles together, like sitting around a mobile dining table. There was the station wagon my brother made up a 1-line song for (“roof-rack car, roof-rack car, roof-rack car”); the one with the then-very-novel sunroof and diesel engine; the pick up we rolled around in the back of, playing “flexibility”; the van that sang a rhythmic tune –ka-kunk, ka-kunk, ka-kunk–as it rolled over the concrete slabs when we went to the beach; the one in which my toddler brother’s forehead got sliced open when we came to a sudden stop, the lack of seat belts propelling him forward to the dashboard (my mother tells me he pulled out all the stitches), and the one that towed our boat to Mexico and back. And then there was the legendary darling, Fifi.
When I was a teenager, my parents had a turquoise blue Citroen Deux Cheveax two seater truck-van. This was the famous little Fifi, symbol of our move into the past when when we left a comfortable home in California and settled on a farm in southern France. A farm without indoor plumbing, running water, or heat; a chemical toilet in the barn, and a wood burning stove. She rode high in the back and the front seats were made from the kind of spring system you find on a cot or a bunk bed. They bounced wonderfully over all the bumps in the country roads and when with age they got rusty, they had their own song to sing. The yellow headlights could be adjusted with a manual crank so that when the truck was loaded they didn’t shine in the oncoming drivers’ eyes. Eminently sensible. The windows didn’t roll down, they were hinged in the middle and folded. Changing gears involved a delicate and intricate dance of pulling, pushing and rotating the stick that extended from the dash rather than the floor. It had a 90 degree bend at the hand end and a fist-sized black ball to grab. It looked like a head being tortured on an amusement park ride as it went this way and that. I imagined painting eyes on it and a mouth in the O shape of a permanent scream. I was fascinated by the seeming patternless contortions the driver made that stick shift perform.
Fifi took pigs to the abattoir, chased down a stray horse, hauled topsoil and manure, brought home our new dog Blue from the pound, brought tools to work areas on the backwoods track, and helped take rocks from the neighbor’s fields. We transported a hind quarter of beef one time, picking it up in Devon from a family friend, crossing the channel, and driving the several hundred miles from the port to our farm in Languedoc. She carted furniture from my grandmother’s house in England to the kitchen in France; school children to the beach, and the luggage of visiting friends. It was in that truck that my brother tried to strangle me because I made fun of his drumming skills. And when the moped ran out of gas, she came to the rescue.
Fifi carried a new Rayburn stove from England to France on one occasion. My mother and grandmother waited to board the ferry for crossing the channel, arriving in the dark early morning hours to be sure of getting on. The sun came up and others began to arrive and the pair left the truck to find some hot coffee and breakfast. When they returned most of the cars that had arrived hours after them were busy being loaded. Like the grocery store, the lanes were moving at different rates and my mother couldn’t decide which was quickest. She agonized over her choice and finally picked a lane that seemed to be moving well. But, true to form, the person in front had a problem. A big, time-consuming, patience-devouring, frustration-producing problem. The solution took so long to arrive at that in the end the only car not to make it on the boat was little blue heavily laden Fifi. As the ferry operated just once a day, my mother and grandmother were forced spend the night in the truck or sacrifice their spot. Nan stretched across the front seats and mum spent the night on top of the stove.
That little van brought me home from boarding school on the weekends, hauled water from the spring when the municipal supply had been cut off, was harnessed to the plow horse when the tires spun in mud, witnessed a lot of my teen tears, and carried my father to the train station to say goodbye to me when I left home at 17. He was drunk, sorry, and sad; it was one of the most poignant and painful experiences of my life.
Some years after I had left home, poor Fifi met her maker while my mother was driving yet another pig to the abattoir. There was an accident, and she remembers grain spilling all over the road and being worried about it. My poor brother had to be cut from the front seat and taken to hospital, though fortunately all he suffered was a broken nose. The pig had been the joint project of my dad and the mayor, and when the latter discovered that the pig had never made it to the slaughterhouse he went straight to the farm, rousing my sick father from bed. “The pig!” the mayor yelled, “all that time and money and no pig!” “What?” replied my dad. “Where is my wife then?” “Oh she was in an accident. Tell me, what are you going to do about the pig?” The mayor was still going on about the lost animal 10 years later, while in the barn the remains of Fifi gathered dust, stacks of firewood, sawdust, and nesting birds. Someone bought her carcass in 2009, when she was 33 years old. Fifi lives on somewhere still.
I first learned to drive on our Massey-Ferguson tractor when I was 16, but I was fully 23 before I actually got a license. My first car was a 1970 Volkswagen beetle. I drove it from North Carolina, where I bought it after I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Soil Science, out to California, to the town where I grew up. My brother once got pulled over in it and I can’t quite recall the circumstances but somehow the fact that we have the same initials, and obviously the same last name, meant he didn’t get a ticket. I too got pulled over in it, right in front of the police station, and given the full battery of field sobriety tests. The officer couldn’t believe I had had only one drink, since he’d seen me walk out of a bar at 1 am. I worked in the attached liquor store and had had my free drink before leaving to come home. I had also waited at least an hour between drinking it and getting behind the wheel because I knew the reputation of our petty small town cops. Ha. No ticket, just an admonition to get my California tags.
I’ve had several vehicles since then, all but one a dark blue, but nothing bigger than a wagon, which was as soccer-mom as I was willing to get when my kids were growing up. I don’t like vans and I refuse to drive an SUV. In one way or another I have identified with every car I have had. There was something I loved about each one, and something I wanted to change. I vacillated between wanting a vehicle that was suave, and one that was utilitarian. Some days I wanted to fit in at the swank shopping mall down the freeway, and other times I wanted to flip off the same set of people. A truck is something altogether different. At least for me.
For the first time in my life I have been able to chose a vehicle that points me in a certain direction, a direction I have been yearning for lo these 20 years and more. I am headed toward the artist’s life, the one where I devote my time to creativity, the gathering of ideas, the exploring of territory. My truck tells me I am serious about this photography lark and here is the tool for the job. The truck is the foundation on which my journey will be built. My dad would have been all for it, had he lived to see the day. My pops was all about the tools and having the right one for the job. And he loved him an adventure. After all, he was the guy who got a job playing with dynamite in Australia simply by telling the foreman that he had worked for British Rail. He also went through 3 months supply of the stuff in 2 weeks by using it for fishing. He was fired.
Yes, it is only a truck and it isn’t necessary for me to have it in order to be an artist. I know this. But it is a symbol, and symbols can be the impetus to action, a way to believe in oneself and one’s destination. My truck is the representation of my intention and it is part of how I will get there. Like the beloved and long lived Fifi, I think my vehicle will be a touchstone for memory and image when, in future years, I look back at this time. That’s how deep it feels.
I’m calling her Wanda.